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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

March 14, 1997

When I got into the auto service business in 1951, it was easy. I took as many auto shop classes in high school as I could and hung around a local garage after school. Eventually, I was hired as a gas pump jockey and from there I graduated to the lube rack to learn simple tasks such as adjusting brakes and clutches and installing tires. The older mechanics liked me and taught me advanced skills towards being a full-fledged mechanic.

Although cars and trucks are far more complex today, the routine is pretty much the same. - except that it requires much more initial schooling, as well as considerable professional growth education to stay up with what's new.

But the primary factor is that you have to like cars and trucks, have a good analytical mind and not be afraid to get dirty. There are many different types of auto service jobs, and while some are entry-level and low-pay, they often lead to other jobs that require more skill and offer more money.

DETAILER - At one time this was a kid's job and amounted to washing and cleaning up the neighbor's car for a few bucks. Now there are automated car washes that hire lots of unskilled labor to wipe off the excess water and vacuum out the interior. Minimum wages and minimum skill. But there are also specialized shops that cater to a more upscale clientele, offer more minute clean-up and they're often mobile. Some really high-class companies specialize in show-car preparation and they're the elite of the profession.

AUTOMOTIVE MACHINIST - This is a very specialized skill that involves jobs like grinding crankshafts, resurfacing valves and valve seats and reboring bare engine blocks. An auto machinist also operates large presses, cleaning tanks and glass bead blasters as well as the assembly of rebuilt engines. There aren't many specialized schools around for this type of work, but a couple of years in a high school or community college general machine shop give the beginner a feel for machines and a head start in the trade.

GENERAL AUTO MECHANIC - "Mechanic" is a misnomer for what is today more accurately described as an auto repair technician. Modern vehicles are complex and require experience in electronics as well as skills in replacing clutches and overhauling transmissions. Besides "basic training" in high school shop classes, many community colleges offer certificate and degree programs in the field. Large dealerships often hire technicians who have served "unofficial" apprenticeships in small independent shops. Being an auto repair technician pays well but requires a large personal investment in hand tools.

OIL AND FILTER CHANGER - A good place to start to see if you like the auto repair field. Quick-lube shops have sprung up like wildflowers in spring and they're usually clean, well run and fast. Basically, it involves changing a vehicle's oil and oil filter so don't expect high pay since the skill required is minimal.

PART SALES TECHNICIAN - A most underrated job skill. A good counterperson has to have a good memory, understand the working of a vehicle and have lots of patience with the public. It usually starts with the beginner driving a delivery truck, graduates into stocking parts and then onto the counter. The pay is pretty good and I know some people who have been with dealerships and independent parts houses for 30 years or more. It helps to really like cars since it requires more dedication than selling soda pop at a convenience store.

BODY REPAIR TECHNICIAN - I've always considered body repair people to be as much artist as technician. It's become a specialized field with skills required to straighten one-piece unibodies as well as fitting up replacement body and fender panels and knocking out dents. Being a good auto painter is almost a trade in itself and requires lots of skill and experience to get it right. Some community colleges and private schools offer training in the trade, but not many.

SPECIALIZED AUTO TECHNICIAN. There are almost as many individual jobs in the auto field as there are parts on a car. I've sent my students into automatic transmission shops, tire stores that do brakes and alignments and shops that specialize in replacing engines with in-house rebuilds. Some shops specialize in auto electrics only. Most specialty shops require training ahead of employment but others do on-site training.

Getting into any of these service trades shouldn't be taken lightly. Many of them pay very well and require considerable skill. Those of us who have been or are currently in them take pride in our trades and don't look kindly on beginners who become haphazard or sloppy workers.

They make the rest of us look bad.